Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
April 12, 2020
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
As I was taking my walk the other day, I encountered an unforeseen obstacle in my path. A large Canadian goose stood there literally daring me to walk past. At first I wasn’t alarmed but when I moved closer and the goose refused to move, I grew a bit concerned. When I attempted to move around the goose, it seemed to follow me and stick out its neck as if it were ready to be aggressive. I couldn’t see any mate or nest that the goose was trying to protect but I began to feel a little afraid. It seemed within the realm of possibility that this goose was going to attack me. I turned around on the walking path and after a safe distance went into the nearby grass and made a wide path around the creature.
My experience reminded me of a story told in a sermon by Andrew Greenshaw of New Orleans. Greenshaw’s nephew Oscar was visiting him and he decided to take Oscar to a nearby park to feed the ducks. Armed with a loaf of bread he and Oscar headed toward the ducks. Understanding that Oscar tended to be a rather timid boy who was somewhat afraid of birds, Greenshaw tried to reassure him, “Oscar, the ducks may look funny but they won’t hurt you. I promise that they won’t hurt you!” With that Oscar began to toss bread to the ducks. Soon the ducks moved past the point of contentment to greed. They began to notice who was holding the bread and who was feeding them. They began to walk with a purpose, straight toward little Oscar. Now terrified, Oscar hid behind the legs of his uncle. He started to cry in terror, screaming out the words that his uncle had used to reassure him, “They won’t hurt you! They won’t hurt you! They won’t hurt you!” So great was his fear that his uncle picked him up, tossed the rest of the bread aside, and made his way to the car.
In the midst of this virus pandemic, all of us are experiencing a range of emotions. There are moments of joy and gratitude, when we suddenly appreciate ordinary things that we had previously taken for granted. There is anger and frustration for this terrible interruption in the midst of our everyday lives. We all want to live a normal life again. There is grief for the loss of what was and will never be again. There is grief for loved ones passed and for opportunities that will not come again. And there is fear. My good friend, David Bard, bishop of the Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church writes, “There is the fear we know, the virus and its effects. There is the fear about what we don’t know. How susceptible are we? How will this affect our work and our finances? How much longer will we have to stay at home to stay safe?”
Bishop Bard reminds us that fear is a powerful emotion. It is one of the earliest emotions that we experience as a human being. It alerts us to danger and keeps us safe. In the midst of this pandemic it moves to better hygiene and social habits. Fear is normal. It moves us from complacency and helps us to take whatever action needs to be taken to keep us out of danger. But we also know that fear is a negative thing. Fear limits our ability to think clearly and assess our situation accurately. Fear leads to blame and to narrowness of mind toward others. Fear is not a good thing when it paints a darker picture of reality and moves us to be less than the people we are created to be.
There are many examples in Scripture of people who are afraid, and of God or God’s messengers speaking directly to them about their fear. I have always been told that “Do not be afraid” is one of the most repeated lines in all of Scripture. There is the story of the little girl rehearsing her lines for the annual Christmas program. She was the angel who got to speak to Mary and to the shepherds saying, “Do not be afraid.” When the moment came to deliver that line, the little girl paused and said, “Angels are always saying stuff like that.”
God is always saying stuff like that. To Moses. To Elijah. To Zechariah. To disciples on a boat in the midst of a storm. To the churches in the book of Revelation. To Mary. To Joseph. To shepherds.
Here in Matthew’s account of Easter morning we hear those same words again. First to the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who had come to the tomb only to find the stone rolled away by a great earthquake. The mighty powerful forces of the Roman army, the guards at the tomb were shaking like leaves. But an angel tells the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” Then the women leave and tell this unexpected news to Jesus’ disciples. It is Jesus who meets the disciples saying to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Do not be afraid. This might be the place where you think I would tell you that fear is a bad thing and we should do our best to just get rid of it. But as I read over this resurrection account I get the feeling that fear isn’t always such a bad thing. It is fear that puts us in a place where we begin to understand ourselves a little better- who we are and what we have to deal with our situation. It is fear that keeps us from being dormant and idle and demands that do something, hopefully that which God is calling us to do.
Another one of my colleagues Robert Baggott, former minister at Community Church of Vero Beach wrote this in a Facebook post this week. He said, “Turbulent times like these, teach us- in such harsh ways- that life is so vulnerable, that seeming certainties are so uncertain, and that material achievements are so fleeting. The fear that then naturally emerges from these realizations can rattle us profoundly. But it can, and it must, also awaken us to a renewed appreciation and commitment to all that is firm and certain in our lives, such a deepening our relationships with our spouses, children and friends, re-dedicating ourselves to living a life of purpose, and learning to recognize, and be grateful for, the infinite blessings that God bestows upon us each day.”
Patricia Adams Farmer writes, “Fear may be our companion, a needed companion during times of war and natural disasters, but there is more- so much more. May we take a breath of hope, not to rid ourselves of all fear, but simply to calm the loud and noisy clamor. Then take another breath of compassion for the world and its troubles…Invite fear in for a conversation. Sit with it. Listen to it. Then, respond with honesty and self-compassion. After a time, let it go to the backseat of your mind while you breathe and smile for all that is still good and true and beautiful in the world.”
As I read this lesson I began to embrace that God isn’t asking us to never be afraid. I have a feeling that Moses and Elijah and Zechariah and Mary and Joseph, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, and the disciples still were at least a little fearful, even after hearing those reassuring words from God. It is normal for us to be afraid. But we have to move in faith within our fear.
God is asking us to honestly face our fear and to understand the divine reality that is beyond those fears. Fear is not the end. Let fear be a spark that moves and renews and resurrects you to new understandings and renewed commitments. Let us acknowledge our fear but put them in a smaller place that doesn’t hide our hope our joy and our love. The Easter story teaches us that things in life may go wrong. Things will not be perfect. But whatever happens, no matter how bad it may seem, God has the power to carry us through. Even death is not stronger than the love of God. In Easter, God overcomes death and darkness. In Easter we know that the ways of God are much stronger than any of the ways of fear that we feel.